Grand designs for Cairo Egyptian Museum include expansions and virtual restitution

After many set backs a new building is finally in the works, as well as plans for a modern solution to the dispersal of Egypt's treasures


The rich collections of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which include the treasures excavated from the tomb of Tutankhamun, may finally move to a new home.

The museum, built in 1902, has long been criticised for the poor conditions in which the works of art in the collection are preserved. It suffers from inadequate security systems, objects are cramped in inadequate gallery space, the building itself is in a bad state of repair, and the collections are presented with little or no information or documentation.

As early as 1960 a plan was formed to improve the situation by building a new home for the collections. A site was chosen, and work was scheduled to be completed in 1965, but the plans were never realised.

In 1981-82 ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) proposed expanding the present museum, both underground and through the construction of annexed buildings. A feasibility study was carried out under the direction of Luis Monreal and Said Zulfikiar both of UNESCO at the time. The proposals were set aside on the death of President Sadat, and the new regime returned to the suggestion of a new purpose-built museum.

Finally, in 1993 the Egyptian Ministry of Culture invited Italy to collaborate in the project, and a joint Italian-Egyptian commission was set up.

This Spring the commission met to set in motion a feasibility study, to be completed by the end of the year, and followed by an architectural competition. The location of the new museum will be that chosen in 1960.

Overlooking the pyramids and the city of Cairo at a distance of two kilometres, the site offers 100,000 square metres of space, and will include galleries, and space for conservation and documentation.

The old building in Cairo will be restored and will be maintained as a museum, with new displays documenting the phenomenon of "Egyptomania" (of which the museum itself is an important example), but the core of the collections will be transferred to the new site, where the treasures of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun will form the nucleus of the new museum.

Professor Andrea Bruno, lecturer in architectural restoration at the University of Milan, and a member of the Italo-Egyptian commission, told The Art Newspaper of the commission's ambitious plans for the new building. The core collections will be surrounded by so-called "satellites" in which will be gathered all the Egyptian museums around the world. "The idea was born from thinking of the Egyptian collections dispersed around the world", explained Professor Bruno. "The proposal, which has been well received, is to create in this new space a virtual, and partly physical, vision of the world's Egyptian museums. We would like the Louvre, the Egyptian Museum in Turin and the British Museum to become involved in a sort of symbolic restitution of objects."

Curators who are already jumping out of their skins at the mention of restitution need not be alarmed, however. These so-called restitutions would take the form of casts, models and reconstructions, or could make use of new computer technologies to create "virtual reality" environments.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Virtual restitution'